Pat Conroy Pumped enough fulsome mint-julep rhetoric into his bestseller The Prince of Tides to make some readers forget they were swallowing Southern-fried tripe. For the film, director-producer-star Barbra Streisand hired Conroy to write the script with Becky Johnston (Under the Cherry Moon). She also burdened the already emotionally overloaded saga with psychobabble about the inner child and healing the dysfunctional family. Therapy junkies and Oscar voters (a redundancy?) may lap it up while the rest of us gag.
Streisand hyperbolizes everything, from James Newton Howard's whackingly obtrusive score to Nick Nolte's overripe narration as Tom Wingo, the South Carolina coach and English teacher who says he envies boring lives. Wingo's had it rough. His troubled marriage worsens when he leaves behind his M.D. wife, Sallie (Blythe Danner), and their three daughters and heads for New York to comfort his twin sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), a poet who has attempted suicide. At first, Wingo is hostile to Savannah's psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (a mannered Streisand), but the shrink's sleek body (adoring close-ups courtesy of the director) soon has Wingo jumping onto her couch and into her bed. The doctor also has a troubled family — a cheating musician husband (Jeroen Krabbé,) and a prodigy son (Jason Gould, the son of Streisand and Elliott Gould), who learns about football and make bonding from Wingo.
Nobody beats the Wingos, though, when it comes to trauma. Without giving away the big secret, let it be known that Wingo unearths violent memories of his parents — shrimper Henry (Brad Sullivan) and scheming Lila (Kate Nelligan's fine, forceful performance is award caliber). Nolte also acts with uncommon feeling, especially in limning an emotional catharsis that would defeat a lesser talent.
But even the stalwart Nolte drowns in the laughable idiocy of the Wingo-Lowenstein love affair, which lifts Tides to the fiasco class. Their courtship, shot by Stephen Goldblatt like a musical, suggests the worst of Streisand's Star Is Born. If you're wondering what happened to Savannah, a key character in the book that Streisand reduces to a walk-on, you're missing the point. Streisand sees Tides as a film about the therapist as god, with herself as the healing deity. Even at the end, when Wingo drives into the sunset, he keeps muttering the same name like a prayer, an incantation: "Lowenstein, Lowenstein." Streisand does not superimpose her image over the sky, striking the one note of modesty in a movie that doesn't know the meaning of the word.